A Brief History of The Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film Category
Next week, the results for the 89th Academy Awards will be in. So before we get to today’s topic, I’ll just give a brief summary of my predictions. La La Land to sweep, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Fences, Zootropolis, Jackie, O.J.: Made in America, The Jungle Book and Toni Erdmann get their share of the prizes La La Land doesn’t get.
And speaking of Toni Erdmann, let’s talk about the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Not a lot of people, other than cinephiles like me, seem to acknowledge this category, unless something major shows up on the outside. So today, we at musicMagpie are going to change all that and give you an informative overview of the Oscar category Best Foreign Language Film.
Over the years since its inception, AMPAS has acknowledged countless foreign language pictures. The most prominent examples of their acknowledgement of foreign exports are the amount of recognition La Grande Illusion received at the 1939 Academy Awards and the copious amount of screenwriting nominations given to the early films of Italian Neorealism (like the first two instalments of Roberto Rossellini’s War trilogy). While we’re on the subject of Italian Neorealism, this leads us directly to the birth of the Best Foreign Language Film category. At the 20th Academy Awards, Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine was presented with a special award for the following reason:
“The high quality of this motion picture, brought to eloquent life in a country scarred by war, is proof to the world that the creative spirit can triumph over adversity.”
From that moment on, at each ceremony, the Board of Governors would hand out an honorary award for the best feature not in the English language to be released in the United States (sometimes a year or two later than their national release). They were:
Monsieur Vincent (Maurice Cloche, 1947)
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
The Walls of Malapaga (René Clément, 1949)
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
Forbidden Games (René Clément, 1952)
Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1954)
Then for the 29th Academy Awards, a new category honouring the best in foreign language cinema was officially created in the form of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Among the first batch of nominees included Kon Ichikawa’s anti-war picture The Burmese Harp and the category’s inaugural victor La Strada by Federico Fellini.
This would be only the first of four features that Fellini would direct to victory (he won again the following year with Nights of Cabiria) and the beginning of Italy’s overall dominance in the category with fourteen wins (the most recent being The Great Beauty in 2013) and thirty one nominations. Among other auteurs to show up in this category include Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Jacques Tati, Luis Bunuel and the more recent likes of Chen Kaige, Ang Lee, Pedro Almodovar, Aki Kaurismaki, Michael Haneke, Guillermo del Toro and Asghar Farhadi.
The countries yet to receive recognition in this category include South Korea, who have been submitting features since 1962 without receiving a single nomination (not submitting the likes of Poetry and The Handmaiden was a bit of a mistake in hindsight), Turkey, Egypt (even with the likes of Cairo Station and Clash) and Romania (some of us are still feeling the sting of the snubbing of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the latter especially). But we’re sure their time will come soon, especially with the voter base changes AMPAS has planned for 2020 (I will summarise them as ‘out with the old and in with the new’).
Sometimes even acclaimed foreign films from other countries manage to make it into other categories, even when they don’t make it in the FLF category; that is when AMPAS politics don’t dampen their efforts. Among those films are Europa Europa, Three Colours: Red, Talk to Her, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Two Days and One Night and most recently Elle (before you ask, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t count).
However, like all categories at the Oscars, the Foreign Language Film category is not without its problems, the most commonly cited of which is the process of submission itself.
AMPAS rules dictate that there can only be one submission per country and the film has to have been released within a certain period of time (often between October and September). This is in stark contrast to other foreign language film prizes at the likes of BAFTA, the critics’ awards and even the Golden Globes, where any film released in the UK and USA in the year in question is eligible no matter what. Trust me, when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association does something better than you, you know you’ve messed up.
Thus certain acclaimed pictures are often glossed over in the submission process in favour of those pandering to AMPAS’s tastes, unless there’s no other option. Another problem the category poses is its perceived status as a ‘ghetto’ category which it has adopted in recent years, similar to the Best Animated Feature and Documentary Feature categories.
Very rarely does a foreign language picture manage to break into the major categories for picture, directing, acting or writing, and even then it has to either be undeniable (like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) or in the right place at the right time (like Amour), and even then that can be an issue. Even in a year like 2015, where competition was weak, Son of Saul suffered the same fate as the likes of Carol, Inside Out and The Look of Silence (a foreign-language documentary), failing to break into the major categories in favour of more obvious crowd-pleasers.
Politics plays a part in the problems with the category. Sometimes, if an acclaimed picture falls foul of politics within its own country of origin, it risks being snubbed in favour of a subpar picture, often for very self-serving reasons. Two examples of this come to mind; one was averted and the other became a reality.
The first was back in 2014, when acclaimed Russian feature Leviathan returned from Cannes with a Best Screenplay award and was met with controversy for its anti-Putin undertones. There was concern among cinephiles in film forums (trust me I witnessed it and was worrying alongside them) that Leviathan would get snubbed in the submission process in favour of the latest film directed by Putin ally Nikita Mikhalkov. However, this did not happen, and Russia submitted Leviathan regardless.
Now onto the example that really happened. In 2016, Brazilian feature Aquarius was receiving acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, just as Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was suspended for bribery and possibly as part of a right-wing coup. The people involved with Aquarius spoke out against this, and were met with massive controversy in their homeland, including a scathing review from a supporter of current president Michel Temer, even though said person had not even seen the film at the time. Thus one thing led to another, including the Temer supporter being put in charge of the selection process, and the subpar rom-com Little Secret was sent instead. Proof that dirty politics tinges everything, even the arts.
The final problem the category poses is a big one, the voter base itself. The voters of this area are a fickle bunch, seen as ultra-conservative in their picks, especially in the final shortlist.
2016 was no exception in that regard. There were countless numbers of acclaimed pictures submitted to AMPAS, including Elle, Clash, Sieranevada, British-Iranian effort Under the Shadow and the nominated likes of Toni Erdmann and The Salesman. However, none of the other features made it to the final shortlist, being pushed to one side in favour of films more suited to the conservative voters’ tastes. However, this problem could be eradicated by 2020 when changes to Academy membership and the voter base come into play.
So to summarise, we would recommend you pay more attention to this category. Who knows what you might find if you really take a closer look? But remember, when it comes to the process, nothing is as it seems.
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